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There Is Nothing We Won't Squeeze Milk Out Of; The Rise of Alt-Milks

by Rudy Sanchez on 09/24/2019 | 5 Minute Read

There seems to be an endless supply of plants and nuts to make non-dairy milk from; in fact, there are many more plants we squeeze milk from than any animal species. Sure you’ve heard of a few like soy and almond, but what about hemp, cashew, rice, or coconut, even banana, an alt-milk that has gained traction with the introduction of Mooala, which although low in protein and fats, ticks a lot of boxes for today's wellness-focused consumer — it’s vegan, paleo, and raw. 

It’s the latest, non-dairy craze to consume the nation, because that is what we needed, right? Another plant-based milk, just one made with bananas and sunflowers seeds that come decked out in a bottle with a koala made to look like a cow.

It might also be a sign that the real competition for plant-milk isn’t moo-juice, consumption of which has been on the decline for years, but other alt-milks currently in the market, and possible new entrants, as it seems there’s nothing humans won’t make milk out of.

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Plant-based milk has been a niche alternative to dairy for the lactose-intolerant and crunchy vegetarian types for decades but has grown to become a substantial threat to cow's milk, which saw a decline of $1.1 billion in 2018, while plant-based milk has cultivated $1.6 billion, a 9% increase in sales. But what is driving this rise in alt-milk consumption, and how has this boom changed the branding and packaging of plant-based dairy alternatives?

Although we've consumed nut and plant alternatives such as soy, almond, and coconut milk for centuries, it took a while to gain prominence.

Vegetarian milk has had its fair share of notable proponents, including automotive pioneer and industrialist Henry Ford, who saw soy as a “miracle bean” and, in 1928, opened the Chemical Lab, dedicated to the development of the crop for food and industrial applications.

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Ford’s gambit eventually paid off, in a way, as soybeans proved to be a useful crop, with a multitude of industrial applications, such as plastics, oils and lubricants. Soybeans could also be rotated on the same land as cotton, peanuts and sweet potatoes, replenishing that soil’s nitrogen and minerals, and improving lucrative cotton yields, an idea first championed in the US by chemist George Washington Carver.

Despite the boom in soy production in the US, the age of prosperity that followed years of economic austerity and war meant that consumption was mostly regulated to livestock, as newfound wealth fueled Americans’ desire for animal flesh. Most soy gets processed into oil, both for cooking and non-cooking, as well as soybean meal. With soybean meal, however, nearly 98 percent is used to feed the animals we feed upon.

While some like Henry Ford saw plant-based food like soy as an efficient source of nutrition, and others like the Adventists promoted a vegetarian diet as literally divine, neither of those endorsements provided alt-milks the boost we see today. Today’s surge in their popularity is most likely due in part by two significant shifts in consumer habits: placing more weight on ethical consumption and prioritizing overall wellness.

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More consumers are weighing the ethical considerations of the products they buy than ever before. A recent report from Nielsen found that 81% of global respondents feel that companies should help improve the environment. That same mindset towards a more sustainable lifestyle extends into the choices in products consumers buy. 

Research by NYU Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business, which tracked sales for over 71,000 SKUs over 36 categories, found that, overall, products marketed as sustainable grew 5.6 times faster than those that were not, and in over 90% of those categories, they also grew quicker than their counterparts.

For the sustainable-conscientious, plant and nut-based milk seem like a no-brainer over traditional dairy. According to UK soy milk maker Alpro, their beverages use half the land, four times less water, and produce 250% less CO2 gases than their dairy competitors. Dairy farming uses more land and water, and produces more emissions than rice, soy, oat, and almond milk, although plant-based milk varies in each of these categories. Each type of alt-milk has a trade-off, with almond and rice milk requiring more water than soy or oat milk, but still less than dairy.

While long used as a substitute for dairy by those with varying degrees of lactose intolerance, many modern drinkers of moo-less milk are choosing to do so for different nutritional reasons. Plant and nut-based milk are compatible with modern health trends like keto and vegan, but a significant amount of consumers are “flexitarians,” or buyers that aren’t strict adherents of any particular food trend but will occasionally choose perceived healthier options. A recent study of consumer preferences found that one-third of alt-milk drinkers are flexitarian, and over half chose non-animal alternatives for health reasons.

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Alt-milks like Oatly and Ripple are riding the paradigm shift in consumer preferences, moving beyond the historical reasons consumers choose plant-based milk, and fully leveraging the sustainable and health reasons while elevating the branding and packaging to something that appeals to the modern, non-moo drinker. Making non-dairy milk cool is not a new strategy; soy milk maker Vitasoy has long marketed their products like a soft drink alternative in Asia, packaging it in slick cartons and soft drink-like bottles, while touting health benefits. 

Historically, all-milk has comes packaged in simple, utilitarian designs, but as more alternatives land on the scene, the packaging has become a point of differentiation among the multitude of options. Whereas you use to see an almond splash-landing in a pool of its own creation, you now have brands like Oatly who view themselves as a lifestyle company that celebrates its handmade nature, plus there isn't another product that looks like their oat milk. 

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Every plant-based milk is not just competing with dairy, but also with many other alt-milks, which includes pea, oat, and hazelnut milk, and the bigger the grocery aisle gets, the more brands need to announce themselves.

The rise of milk squeezed out of nuts, grains, and legumes has not gone unnoticed, and the very use of words like milk, cheese and yogurt by these non-animal alternatives has caused some controversy and accusations of consumer confusion. Last year, there were even signs that the FDA would take action on the labeling of plant-based milk, with a former commissioner commenting last year  that “almonds don’t lactate.” 

Given the momentum of alt-milks, it would appear that consumers care more about perceived health and environmental benefits of plant-based milk rather than whether or not someone squeezed it out of a teat, with purchasing of these non-dairy milk alternatives a proactive, conscious decision.

Then again, there’s always the possibility of beef milk coming back as a hot, new trend.